Dan Berry / The New York Times – 2008-02-26 22:37:21
Living With Danger, and Wondering
How to Live Without It
NEWPORT, Ind. (ebruary 25, 2008) — The employees pull up to the gate, show their identification cards to the armed security guards and continue on. They drive past wooded stretches and open fields, past the occasional frolicking deer, and park before buildings of almost requisite ugliness. Shift time.
Save for those stockpiles of chemical warfare agent on the grounds, the Newport Chemical Depot could be any other industrial plant. But here they are, steel containers of viscous fluid the color of straw and as lethal as almost anything on earth.
The agent’s benign name, VX, leaves people to wonder if the V stands for victory or venomous, while its very nature challenges the imagination to convey the deadliness at hand. Just know that a drop on the skin can cause gruesome death in minutes.
During the cold war, this rural corner of west-central Indiana produced thousands of tons of VX for the government. Now this same rural corner is oh-so-carefully neutralizing a sizable portion of the VX it made long ago, in keeping with international treaty and the ever-peculiar endeavors of humankind.
Of course, for those on the other side of the plant’s fence, all of this has meant adapting to unthinkable thoughts. Sara Morgan, a retired teacher who over the years has challenged some Army decisions regarding the VX stockpile, says she lives in a farming area that, in preparations for a major chemical accident, used to be referred to as “the dead zone.”
“Now they call it the Immediate Response Zone,” she says wryly. “The I.R.Z.”
Still, many people here are proud that when their country called, they answered, conducting a cradle-to-grave mission that should be completed by late summer. They worry less about the risks of the job – no injury or death so far – than they do about the loss of hundreds of jobs when that last droplet of VX is destroyed at what is the largest employer in Vermillion County.
The nerve agent is so much with the community that it has nearly lost its ghastliness. A local calendar features both the artwork of schoolchildren and tips for emergency preparedness; next month, then, the drawings of Kyle and Amber and Brittney will appear below the explanation that VX “affects the nervous system by interfering with the signals sent from the brain to the vital organs and other body parts.”
These calendars, along with pens, decks of cards and other informational items, are free at the Newport Chemical Stockpile Outreach Office in nearby Clinton, where a white hazmat suit is displayed in the window and the office manager, Susan Gilman, describes the work at the depot as “our contribution to national security.”
That contribution stretches back to 1941, when the Army took over several square miles of farmland, along with some homes and a few cemeteries, to build an installation. First it produced explosives, then heavy water, and then, in 1961, a “deterrent”: the nerve agent called VX.
By the time President Nixon declared a moratorium on chemical weapons in 1969, the Newport plant had produced 4,500 tons of VX – enough, if judiciously applied, to kill nearly everyone on the planet. Although most of it had already been shipped in bombs and rockets to various American bases, the plant still had more than 1,200 tons of VX, which raised the question: Now what?
For several years the steel containers, each one holding nearly 180 gallons of VX, lay on the ground outside, like abandoned farm equipment. Then they sat for 25 years inside a warehouse, until the attacks of 9/11 prompted the Army to store them in gravel-covered igloos surrounded by guards, fencing and signs that say, “Use of Deadly Force Authorized.”
There is, though, one homey touch: the igloo entrances are painted to resemble red barn doors.
A couple of years ago the Army finished decontaminating and tearing down anything used to produce VX. Now, in new buildings a few dozen yards away, a government contractor is neutralizing one steel container of the chemical agent at a time, in a project that is expected to cost nearly $2 billion.
Most depot employees were either very young or not yet born when their country decided it simply had to have VX; some have parents who helped to create the chemical agent. Their inheritance, then, is a well-paying but very strange, very delicate assignment.
Each container of VX is removed by forklift from its igloo, strapped to a truck bed and carried a quarter-mile to the “demilitarization facility.” No container is moved in rain or snow, to eliminate the remote chance that a VX droplet escapes and is mistaken for mere precipitation.
The container is placed in a chamber designed to keep humans separate from chemicals made to kill them. The VX is drained into a larger vessel, and the emptied container is flushed with a hot caustic solution, rinsed, dried and baked for 90 minutes at 1350 degrees Fahrenheit. Eventually it finds its way to a scrap-metal recycler in Alabama.
The VX, meanwhile, is mixed and cooked with a solution of sodium hydroxide and water, until the nerve agent is destroyed and caustic wastewater, called hydrolysate, is left. This wastewater is then sampled for trace amounts of VX; about one of every four batches needs further cooking to kill the stuff. But, again, now what?
After years of contentious debate and thwarted plans, the Army quietly – secretly, some say – struck a deal in 2007 to truck the byproduct 1,000 miles south to Port Arthur, Tex., for incineration. So far, those who say the incineration is environmentally hazardous have failed in court to stop the shipments.
Here, meanwhile, feelings remain mixed about, of all things, VX. “It’s such an odd set of circumstances,” says Ed Cole, the executive director of the Vermillion County Economic Development Council. “We want the threat to go away, because that would allow us to market the county more effectively. But once that VX is gone, we’ll lose 830 to 1,000 jobs.”
Luckily, horribly, the Newport Chemical Depot still has more than 200 tons of a deadly cold war remnant to destroy. This means that at least for another few months, some people in west-central Indiana will continue to keep their country safe from a threat, real and self-created.
• Online: A slideshow from Newport, Ind., at nytimes.com/danbarry.
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